Live In A City? Exercising Outdoors Is Bad For Your Brain

city running urban exercise air pollution

Men’s Health reports on a new study that says exercising in urban areas is worse for you than exercising in rural ones. Apparently people who live in a city and exercise outdoors regularly scored lower on cognitive tests than people who live in less urban areas. The culprit? Air pollution. Yuck.

The study, conducted by researchers in Belgium, looked at people in two different groups: 15 in an urban environment and nine in a rural environment. Both groups alternated walking and running three days a week over a 12 week period.

Researchers then tested the participants on their response time and attention span. The urban exercisers scored lower; apparently, high levels of air pollution in cities prevented the city-dwellers from getting some of the cognitive benefits of regular exercise, like brain plasticity, comprehension and mental health. The urban exercisers also had higher levels of inflammation markers in the blood.

Inflammation in the brain may cause mental problems, say the researchers involved in this study. I’m interested to know what prompted researchers to want to connect environment, exercise and cognitive ability. That correlation doesn’t seem obvious to me, but I guess the evidence speaks for itself. Still, I don’t think you should take this to mean you should hang out on your couch rather than head outside to work out, especially if you live in a large urban center. The overall health benefits of exercise are huge, and not worth missing out on. So don’t stop your city running just yet.

Romain Meeusen, one of the Belgian researchers, gave these tips to lessen your risk of air pollution when exercising outdoors in a city:

1. Brave rain and wind. These climates blow the fine particles away so you’re not left inhaling them.
2. Avoid rush hour. The more cars, the more pollution from exhaust fumes.
3. Head to the park. The more trees between you and the road, the better.

Photo: Shutterstock

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    • Alexandra

      I live in the suburbs and get asthma when I exercise outside. When I went to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks this summer, I was hiking and running up mountains all day and had zero symptoms…

    • OMX

      15 city and 9 rural runners over a few weeks is too small a sample size to draw conclusions. Besides, I’ve been running for years in the city and have not noticed any problems with um the stuff the article was wait what are we discussing here…